Interview: Dr George McGavin, TV wildlife presenter
A NEW natural history programme is revealing the fascinating and creepy animal life that’s wide awake while we sleep. Presenter Dr George McGavin tells Alice Wyllie how these amazing pictures are captured and just how badly adapted we are for life in darkness
When it comes to the natural world, there are many areas we know less about that others: the deepest oceans, for example, or the most remote, inhospitable environments. Then there’s the darkness. Night is when most animals are active, but with our relatively poor hearing and eyesight and our propensity to drop off when the sun goes down, much of the nocturnal world remains of a mystery to us.
A three-part BBC2 series, The Dark: Nature’s Nighttime World , which started last night, aims to shed a little light on the darkness, using special equipment in areas including Central America and the Amazon rainforest to film the behaviour of everything from jaguars to spiders after night falls.
It is the latter that particularly interests presenter Dr George McGavin, a former Oxford University biologist and world-renowned insect expert. After studying zoology at Edinburgh University he completed a doctorate at the British Museum of Natural History and Imperial College, London, and has several species of insects named in his honour.
Along with fellow presenters and specialist camera crew he travelled to underground caves and deep jungles with over a tonne of specialist equipment, flipping his body clock on its head to sleep during the day and film at night.
“It isn’t an environment that [humans] are really privy to or happy in,” says McGavin, speaking over the phone from Texas where he’s filming a new series, Swarm Chasers. “We are animals that really shouldn’t be around after dark.”
He observed net-casting spiders, which lie in wait with a special web net, ready to fling it over whichever unfortunate beastie happens to pass. He saw vampire bats, feeding on sleeping sea lions, and headlamp beetles, which have glowing yellow spots on their backs to attract mates; early explorers would read by their light.
Each of these fascinating creatures was filmed in the pitch dark, whether at night or in some cavern deep underground. Since humans don’t function particularly efficiently in such environments, capturing the footage (and staying awake) proved something of a challenge, particularly when filming in a cave in a table top mountain in Venezuela.
“That was a very, very strange environment,” says McGavin. “It’s dark all the time, profoundly dark and we were underground for several days. For a few hours I was on my own and to conserve energy in our head torches I switched everything off and lay there, because it’s dangerous to move around. And the darkness is so intense, so profound that you could almost reach out and squeeze it.
“The stream that flows through the cave was splashing and gurgling, and because your brain is desperate to make sense of what its hearing, because it can’t analyse anything else it tries to make sense of this and you suddenly begin to think you’re hearing things which really aren’t there, voices. I was hearing ‘over here, George’, conversations, children. If you spent more than a week in there you would go mad.”
In addition to risking his own sanity in the darkness, McGavin and his team found themselves in a few sticky situations in environments that would be considered inhospitable even in the light of day. Under cover of darkness, very real threats were suddenly amplified.
In last night’s episode, Justine Evans, the world’s leading nighttime camera specialist, filmed jaguars on a beach from a flimsy cotton hide, when she realised that one was prowling just inches from her tent, in the pitch darkness. Another presenter, Bryson Voirin found his boat circled by a bull shark while he followed it with a torch. McGavin’s closest call was with a deadly fer-de-lance snake.
“It was just by the edge of a track as we walked along,” he says. “I used a stick to lever up a palm frond and have a look, and it was hidden underneath it. It was about four-and-a-half feet long and was much larger than my stick, which meant it could have easily reached my face. I knew in an instant that I was in very dangerous position indeed.”
Recent advances in thermal and infrared imaging have made it possible to film the natural world at night and learn more about a whole range of creatures without altering their behaviour. The moment the net-casting spider snares its prey, for example, is the first time the act has been filmed in the wild in super-slow-motion.
“I hadn’t seen that with my own eyes in the field,” says McGavin. “That was a very long night. Finding them is hard because they’re very hidden and only come out and hunt when it’s dark. Once we found one we just had to hope that it would hunt that night and that prey would arrive. We waited and waited for five hours with mosquitoes buzzing around our heads in the heat. Eventually a cricket came along and my heart was in my mouth.”
The moment the spider caught its supper was captured on a camera which films in the darkness but captures 1000 frames per second. The act itself was over in half a second, with the spider reacting to the cricket’s movement within just one frame.
“I know everybody gets excited about cheetah hunts and puma hunts,” says McGavin, “but that was every bit as exciting on a small scale. Slowed down it was such a beautiful thing.”
The Dark: Nature’s Nighttime World includes tapirs foraging for food in the dark when it’s cooler; a trapdoor spider snatching prey, from behind a specially built ‘door’, and dragging it into its lair; and female green turtles timing the laying of their eggs to coincide with the darkest nights. Their offspring were then filmed creeping past oblivious vultures in the dark, reaching the sea without the predators ever having been aware of their presence.
Ocelots and pumas are captured in the wee small hours, dragging their prey back from a long night of hunting, and beetles are filmed shining orange lights from their bellies just before flying off into the night as McGavin announces delightedly “clear for take-off”.
In one sequence, presenter Gordon Buchanan climbs to the top of a Mayan temple to film howler monkeys, the loudest land animal. Their ghoulish shrieks bouncing off the crumbling walls of the temple in the black night are bone-chilling.
Another personal highlight for McGavin was a trip to observe vampire bats on a small island off the coast of Chile. With little life on the island, bar a few penguins, the team were keen to see what the bats fed on. They tracked them into a cave, caught them and put antennae on them to see where they went to feed. What they found was hundreds of bats sucking the blood from enormous sea lions as they slept on nearby rocks.
“To see a sea lion being constantly harassed by these vampire bats was just amazing,” says McGavin. “They stream out of the cave after dark and hop across the rocks like little evil frogs and just nail these poor animals who can hear them as they fly around. I went over to the rock where the sea lions were the following morning and it was just awash with blood. It was like a war zone, with these big animals being bled every single night.”
The darkness inhibits the movement of human beings. It scares us and hampers our senses. It can even make us hear things which aren’t there, lose our grip on the present. It is an alien, hostile world, one which makes us clumsy and nervous. But for most of the earth’s creatures things start happening once the sun goes down, and Dr George McGavin and his team just can’t resist things that go bump in the night.
• The Dark: Nature’s Nighttime World, BBC2, 9pm on Sundays
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